Opinion: Discrimination can cut both ways

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief

I lived in the north of Scotland during the height of oil-boom Scottish nationalism in the 1970s and, for the first few years, I expected to be discriminated against. I never was, but I am one of the few people I know who has been discriminated against because I was not disabled. Two disability charities planned a merger and their joint steering committee chose me as the chief executive to bring the two together. Naturally, both boards of trustees had to approve the appointment and in doing so they were taking an irrevocable step towards their union.

One board endorsed, the other decided that they couldn't go ahead, not least because the proposed new chief - me - was not disabled. Though the passage of time has blurred the record, I think it was also a clash of cultures between one charity, escaping from paternalism into consumerism, while the other was still in traditional philanthropic mode. Mergers between charities are intrinsically difficult, in my view, but that's a story I'll come back to.

It was a sharp reminder to me not to assume that, because you're disabled (or black, or a woman, or a Christian, or elderly), you're not prejudiced, racist, sexist, sectarian or ageist. In consumer-led charities it's rather easy to assume that every word spoken by a consumer is a pearl of wisdom, and forget that you have to open lots of oysters to find pearls. Charities have a tendency to promote eloquent individuals to a kind of stardom, which is unfair on them and on the other beneficiaries.

Even with a sophisticated consumer advocacy function, the surveys, research, intelligence gathering, opinion studies and analysis are still essential if there is to be a balanced understanding of the needs and priorities of the consumer group. If a rival view emerges, or if it turns out that the needs are different from the assumptions or experience of the star consumer, their fall can be as meteoric as their rise, with a bitter sense of being dropped from the team.

Meanwhile, did the two charities merge? No, and though the merger would probably have been a bruising and bloody process, the joint organisations would have been much stronger. As it is, they both remain weak advocates for the people whose interests they embody. The irony, about which nobody involved would have known, was that when the 'no' vote was cast I was immobilised for the third day running with a bout of the back pain that has plagued me since a teenager.

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